University of Hertfordshire scientists discover new ‘super-Earth’

A NEW super-Earth planet that may have a similar climate to Earth and be perfect to support life has been discovered by a team of astronomers led by a St Albans scientist.

Mikko Tuomi, a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, is heading an international team which has found the new planet.

It exists in a habitable zone of a nearby star and is part of a six-planet system.

This system was previously thought to contain three planets in orbits too close to the star to support liquid water.

However by avoiding fake signals caused by stellar activity, the researchers have identified three new super-Earth planet candidates also in orbit.

Mikko said: “We pioneered new data analysis techniques including the use of the wavelength as a filter to reduce the influence of activity on the signal from this star.

“This significantly increased our sensitivity and enabled us to reveal three new super-Earth planets around the star known as HD 40307, making it a six-planet system.”

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Prof. Hugh Jones, of the School of physics, astronomy and mathematics at the University, and also from St Albans, said: “The longer orbit of the new planet means that its climate and atmosphere may be just right to support life.

“Just as Goldilocks liked her porridge to be neither too hot nor too cold but just right this planet, or any moons that it has lying in an orbit comparable to Earth, increases the probability of it being habitable.”

Earlier this year the Kepler spacecraft found a planet with a similar orbit, but it was located 600 light years from Earth. This new super-Earth planet, HD 40307g, is much closer, located 42 light years from our planet.

Of the new planets the one of greatest interest is the one with the outermost orbit from the star – with a mass at least seven times that of the Earth. Its orbit around the host star is at a similar distance to Earth’s orbit around our Sun, so it receives a similar amount of energy.

Mikko carried out the research as a member of the European science network ‘Rocky Planets Around Cool Stars’ initiative.

It is hoped the team’s find will lead to further discoveries with the next generation of large telescopes, both on the ground and in space.